Saturday, January 30, 2010

Picture of the Day: Precious Cargo

In all my time here in Beijing, I can't understand why grocery stores and supermarkets don't refrigerate their eggs.

During the summer and winter, they just leave them out on the shelf at room temperature. Isn't this bad food safety-wise?

Regardless, the deluxe eggs are nicely packaged in cardboard cartons, which we take for granted at home. These are a bit more expensive, because you are partially paying for the pressed cardboard and the insurance that these eggs will pretty much make it back home in one piece.

But for those who want no-frill eggs, there's the option of buying them in plastic bags, the same ones used to hold fruits and vegetables. A shop assistant will either bag new ones for you, or you can take ones already bagged from a selection in a crate.

While these are much cheaper, there is the off chance that one (or more) will get crushed on the way home as you can see in the picture above.

This is why I save my old cartons to transfer these loose eggs and of course they go straight into the refrigerator.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Avatar Fiasco Continues

Earlier this week officials from Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province renamed a mountain called South Pillar of Heaven as Hallelujah Mountain in reference to the blockbuster film Avatar.

There were claims that director James Cameron based the fictional mountain in space with the one in the Chinese province.

There is even an "Avatar Office" set up to organize Avatar-themed tours, with some travel agencies reporting a 50 percent increase in tourists in the past few weeks.

After news came out of the change in name, many Chinese were up in arms, accusing the officials of selling out to Hollywood and only thinking of short-term gains.

Now the local officials are trying to do damage control, and putting the blame on local villagers for spreading rumours.

"It's nothing but commercial hype," said Zhangjiajie Tourism Bureau Director Ding Yunyong. "Villagers changed the name privately in order to capitalize on the fame. We don't oppose these non-governmental efforts, nor do we support them."

However, the Beijing News reported that at a January 19 symposium titled "Promoting Zhangjiajie with the help of Avatar", He Zhineng, deputy chief of the tourism bureau, said that the city would name Cameron as honorary citizen and invite the leading cast members to visit the city.

And the general manager of the Zhangjiajie branch of China International Tourism Service Sun Yan revealed that the Avatar camera crew have agreed to film the sequel there in three or four years' time.

Looks like these officials are pretty much guilty as charged.

An editorial in the China Youth Daily rhetorically asked why officials simply don't change the name of the city, Zhangjiajie to Pandora and invite Cameron to be its honorary mayor. That way, the paper said, the tourism bureau could become a Hollywood institution.

Meanwhile, tourism officials for the newly named Hallelujah Mountain and Mount Huangshan, where Cameron claimed he got the inspiration for his movie, are still battling it out over which one was the real mountain in the film.

The Avatar Office claimed that Cameron intentionally misnamed the mountain as Mt Huangshan so as to create controversy in China as a strategy to have bigger box office receipts.

What kind of logic is that?

Well-known CCTV commentator Bai Yansong said the name change has become a gigantic joke.

"It's pathetic that Huangshan and Zhangjiajie are struggling to get the name," he said. "Movie scenes can be found everywhere in the world. So why are we being so serious about it? Why is our cultural back so bendable?"

Methinks this fiasco is far from over. Perhaps some heads will roll...

Now that would be dramatic.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Thrill of the Match

We've been glued to our TV sets for the past few days watching China's top women's tennis players, Zheng Jie and Li Na reach the semifinals of the Australian Open.

While 17th ranked Zheng Jie had no problems taking out Russian Maria Kirilenko, I thought world No. 16 Li Na would have no chance against Venus Williams. She proved me wrong.

Li had the exact attitude for the match -- play good tennis and fight for every point. At first she was very nervous, but in the second set she turned things around at 2-4. She started taking advantage of Venus' every mistake which cost her dearly in terms of unforced errors and turned it into her advantage. It was an amazing win to watch and we all relished her well-fought victory 2-6, 7-6, 7-5 with her.

"It's the best day of my whole life," said an exuberant Li. "It's so exciting, maybe I'll have a beer tonight," she said with a smile.

But the fairytale run for these two Chinese players came to an end today.

Today Li had a tough opponent -- defending champion Serena Williams which is intimidating in itself. Her sister was watching in the crowd.

However, Li did not let this phase her and continued on the same game plan, playing as well as she could. She kept up with Serena throughout the match, with 7-6, 7-6. It was only in the tiebreaker in the second set was when Li was not able to hang on, and instead Serena powered to a strong finish with an ace at the end.

Just keeping up with Serena was a feat in itself that should be applauded despite the loss.

"I had so many match points that I blew and I knew on my serve I had to close it out because she never gives up," Williams said after the match. "She is a real fighter."

What a compliment.

But despite Li's long drawn-out match, it did not inspire her fellow compatriot Zheng to continue the fight.

She seemed to be too nervous or lost her rhythm or any hope of winning, as she was quickly defeated by Justin Henin 6-1, 6-0 in 51 minutes.

Apparently Li is known for her tenaciousness, something missing from Zheng.

Li's attitude is a reminder of another Chinese player, Michael Chang, who, while he was a one-hit wonder only winning the French Open, he refused to give up and despite his small size he worked fast around the court.

Nevertheless, Zheng and Li have definitely trail-blazed their way at the Australian Open and tennis fans won't forget their names anytime soon.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Desperate Tourism Measures

A few days ago when I wrote about Avatar, I mentioned a Chinese blogger who felt that Hallelujah Mountain in the film was similar to the mountain in Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province called South Pillar of Heaven.

Now with the movie poised to make a record $100 million from box office receipts in China, officials have decided to rename the mountain Hallelujah Mountain to pay tribute to Avatar.

Local officials said they were renaming the mountain to promote local tourism, according to the Xiaoxiang Morning Herald.

"The purpose of renaming the mountain is not to worship the foreign film, but to send a message that Zhangjiajie belongs to the world," said Song Zhiguang, a local officer who hosted the ceremony yesterday.

"We welcome friends from home and abroad to come to Zhangjiajie and have a look at the real Hallelujah Mountain," he added.

However, Internet users are not happy with officials arbitrarily renaming the mountain, ostensibly for marketing purposes.

According to an online survey on, 84 percent of 11,438 respondents opposed giving the mountain a new name.

Some online users even suggested boycotting travel to Zhangjiajie.

"Those officers are shameless, why not rename Zhangjiajie as Avatar?" a web user commented.

It seems Chinese officials these days are obsessed about boosting tourism in their neck of the woods in a bid to stimulate the local economy. The China National Tourism Administration is mulling over adding a China Tourism Day on the calendar also to boost domestic consumption, but provinces are having squabbles over which day it should be.

It seems strange having a China Tourism Day since most people would probably not get the day off to travel. The public holiday should really be tacked onto a Friday or a Monday to make it a long weekend so that people can actually have enough time to travel.

And now renaming a mountain after Avatar really takes the cake. Whether this will lead to streams of Avatar fans making pilgrimages to the mountain is not certain.

More likely officials will eventually quietly rename the mountain back to its original name to avoid looking like they are fawning over Hollywood blockbusters.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Voices of Reason

Yesterday four senior Communist Party members submitted a letter calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison last month for charges of subversion.

These four are known for their liberal views and in their letter addressed to "incumbent party and government leaders", they urged the authorities to reconsider the verdict against Liu, one of the authors of Charter 08, calling for greater political liberalization in China.

While the letter did not directly call for the human rights campaigner's release, He Fang, one of those who signed it, said so to the Associated Press. "To reverse the verdict and to find that Liu is not guilty  and to release him," he said. "Also, to safeguard the constitution and the rights of freedom of speech." He is an honorary member of the academic committee at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The other three cadres who signed the letter were Hu Jiwei, a former chief of the People's Daily, Li Pu, former deputy chief at the Xinhua News Agency, and Dai Huang, a former Xinhua senior reporter. They are all in their 80s and 90s which is why their seniority could protect them from harassment, and make leaders take notice.

The letter said the main evidence against Liu was that he had called for the establishment of a Chinese "federal republic", but the four contend that he had used the "correct slogan"  which had been used since the early days of the Chinese Communist Party.

"If the judge violates the constitution and has no knowledge of the history of the party... and makes false and incorrect accusations that will seriously tarnish the image of the country and the party, then it's difficult to prove that China is a country ruled by law and a harmonious society," the letter said.

It's very interesting that these senior cadres have come out in support of Liu. What prompted them to do that, and in particular, why now? Why not back in December when he was convicted and there was international outrage at the length of his sentence, let alone how his trial was conducted?

However, the fact that they are speaking out at all about it is very refreshing, and it shows some old timers are really paying attention to the future of the country that they helped build.

While many senior cadres are conservatives whose hardline views can sometimes hold back China's progress, especially socially and politically, it's good to know there are some elders who are anxious for the country to move forward and see the importance of being more liberal.

"These four are senior cadres that have been quite an open-minded force within the party for years," said Patrick Poon, vice president of the Independent Chinese Pen Center, which posted the letter on its website. "They have always been very supportive for pushing forward political reforms while the economic reform has been going well in China."

This letter is good news for Liu in receiving support from such high circles; it also keeps his situation in the spotlight so that he does not fade into obscurity, like the fate of many other dissidents.

What happens now is anyone's guess. It will be hard for the central government to reverse its decision mostly because it would be a loss of face. But perhaps this will lead to his sentence being shortened.

How many more liberal senior cadres are there? They seem to be the only people able to make the government accountable for anything. Mostly in their 80s and 90s, there aren't many more left...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Shaanxi Soul Food

Shaanxi food is a hearty, rustic cuisine, that is mostly noodle-based. There are very strong flavours, mostly spicy, but also savoury with vinegar. Beef and lamb are used alot, as well as potatoes and peppers.

On my first trip to Xian, I tried yang rou pao mo (羊肉泡馍), which had bits of unleaven bread in a lamb-based soup with some vermicelli and a few bits of cabbage. I had put in too many bits of bread in it, making it more of a lumpy stew and so it was difficult to finish.

I wasn't too impressed with it but was willing to give it another chance.

This time around after work a few of my colleagues took me to Hui Min Jie, the Muslim quarter in the south side of the city. We entered the maze of alleys to get to the main street where there were street stalls selling all kinds of things from dried fruit to barbecue lamb skewers, walnuts and Chinese dates called zao, Chinese New Year ornaments celebrating the upcoming Year of the Tiger, Chinese snacks and touristy souvenirs.

We came to a supposedly Muslim restaurant -- I say supposedly because this one had no problem serving alcohol which is a no-no in authentic Muslim places. We didn't order beer, but each had a bowl of yang rou pao mo, this time with more broth which had a strong lamb flavour, the bread already chopped into bits in it. There were also tender slices of lamb, a few bits of vermicelli and chives. It also came with picked garlic and chilli sauce.

A few days earlier I had read about a foreigner living in Xian who equated yang rou pao mo with chicken noodle soup in terms of comfort food. And I could see her comparison right away when I ate this dish, practically draining the bowl towards the end.

The next night we went out on the hunt for noodles. Relatively close to our office is a chain restaurant called Tian Xia Di Yi Mian which is translated as "First Noodle Under the Sun" on its menu.

It is a split-level restaurant, and in it there are blown-up pictures of the owner with a number of celebrities or officials who have visited the eatery. I didn't get a good look at the pictures to recognized anyone though.

As the place specializes in noodles, we each ordered our own bowl. But as I was from out of town, I was steered towards the restaurant's signature dish for 10RMB ($1.46), a flat noodle that is 6cm wide, and 3.8m long. No joke. I had thought this was some kind of traditional dish dating back hundreds of years, but it turns out the history of this particular noodle dates back to March 8, 2000, thus the numbers "3" and "8".

Nevertheless, it was an intriguing challenge of finishing it. A giant bowl arrived with the aforementioned noodle with a few bits of Chinese vegetable in it. The server had to help me find one of the ends of the noodle and then she put that part of the noodle into one of two soupy sauces -- one slightly spicy with bamboo shoots and chives, the other relatively plain with dried tofu strips, mushrooms and chives.

After eating that section of the noodle, I continued on, alternating putting the noodle in the other sauce and cutting it with my chopsticks, but quickly preferred the spicy one as the noodle itself had not much taste.

I continued to eat it at a steady pace and managed to finish the entire thing. What a feat! Now I can boast eating a noodle 3.8m long.

Many restaurants also serve the water used to cook the noodle in -- called 面汤 mian tang -- as a kind of soup to wash the food down. While it's quite starchy and somewhat tasteless, it's a good practice not to waste it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Virtual Ideological Battle Begins

Yesterday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech at The Newseum om Washington DC, talking about Internet freedom. This was the US government's first official response to the Google situation, though it was not directly mentioned by name.

Here are some excerpts of what she said:

Now, in many respects, information has never been so free. There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.

During his visit to China in November, for example, President Obama held a town hall meeting with an online component to highlight the importance of the internet. In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. The United States belief in that ground truth is what brings me here today.

Because amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

In the last year, we've seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained. One member of this group, Bassem Samir, who is thankfully no longer in prison, is with us today. So while it is clear that the spread of these technologies is transforming our world, it is still unclear how that transformation will affect the human rights and the human welfare of the world's population.

On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to our Constitution are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone.

Then she goes on to suggest some authoritarian regimes use controls on the Internet:

Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks. They've expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.

As in the dictatorships of the past, governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools. In the demonstrations that followed Iran's presidential elections, grainy cell phone footage of a young woman's bloody murder provided a digital indictment of the government's brutality. We've seen reports that when Iranians living overseas posted online criticism of their nation's leaders, their family members in Iran were singled out for retribution. And despite an intense campaign of government intimidation, brave citizen journalists in Iran continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening inside their country. In speaking out on behalf of their own human rights, the Iranian people have inspired the world. And their courage is redefining how technology is used to spread truth and expose injustice.

Although she does concede there are those who use the Internet for evil purposes, from terrorism to sexual predators, the majority use it to gain more knowledge, for greater transparency and for greater global communication.

And based on this aspect she believes it is crucial for the US to protect the right to free Internet access around the world. Clinton announced that the government will be working with industry, academia, and non-governmental organizations to use technology to aid in its diplomatic efforts. "By relying on mobile phones, mapping applications, and other new tools, we can empower citizens and leverage our traditional diplomacy. We can address deficiencies in the current market for innovation," she said.

While her statements were broad, she delivered them in a clear firm voice that showed the Obama administration's strong stand on protecting Internet freedom.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is trying to play down the Google issue as a political one and trying to spin is as a purely economic decision.

A Chinese expert claims her speech is just an empty slogan.

"In the US, a country that boasts its Internet freedom, governmental supervision virtually infiltrates across the nation, and its influence further extends to worldwide servers," said Wang Yizhou, deputy chief of the Institute of World Politics and Economy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The information-searching via Google and the online chatting through Windows Live Messenger are all under stringent surveillance, and the relevant agencies are tasked with compiling backups."

Yu Wanli, an expert on international studies at Peking University agreed. "Clinton's so-called Internet freedom is a freedom that is dominated by the US. Ten of the 13 root name servers in the world are located in the US. They are the top hierarchy of the Internet, which means by controlling them, the US can define the freedom of the Internet. How can Clinton guarantee you a freedom if her country has the power to unplug you?"

What Wang says about the US could easily be substituted with China, while Yu misses the point about the Internet. While most of the servers may be housed in the US, the government is not going to pull the plug on the Internet anytime soon and in fact will do everything to protect free access.

Chinese state media is trying hard to twist Clinton's words, but most young savvy Internet users know these two experts' arguments are weak and trying to play up the nationalistic card.

But really, once you take something away from people, they want it back, and not giving them back access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter makes them annoyed and embarrassed about their government's insecurity in not allowing them to access these kinds of sites.

It's not about patriotism, it's about access to what they believe is rightfully theirs.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Cheap Ride to Another World

Last night my colleague here in Xian asked me if I wanted to see Avatar after work, as she had two movie coupons. We decided to check it out and went to a movie theatre west of Zhonglou or the Bell Tower in a fancy shopping mall. And we were able to use the two movie coupons for which she had paid 30RMB ($4.39) each and redeem them for Avatar tickets worth 80RMB ($11.71) each. They were probably the cheapest Avatar tickets in China.

The theatre is small, but we settle in with our heavy 3D glasses on. People continue to talk as the movie starts, but soon there are oohs and ahhs from the audience at seeing the images projected towards them.

However, I was surprised to see the movie was dubbed in Mandarin without any Chinese subtitles, except for when the Na'vi people speak their own language. It was really strange seeing Sigourney Weaver speaking better Mandarin than me. I had expected the movie to be in English with Chinese subtitles, but now the dubbing probably explains why the movie's debut in China was delayed. Nevertheless I understood most of what was going on as it's an action movie, but am still foggy on the details of the plot...

After watching the film I can see why many Chinese related to the storyline of people being forcibly evicted from their homes for demolition by greedy real estate developers and also the helplessness some Uighurs and Tibetans feel in their fight for some kind of independence.

Overall it was a fantastic movie that did transport viewers to another world. While the plot is almost predictable, the visual effects were stunning and shows how advanced computer imagery has developed.

Just before the movie came out in China, a Chinese blogger had doubts over which mountain director James Cameron based Hallelujah Mountain on in the movie. Cameron had said that he had modeled it after Huangshan Mountain in Anhui Province and had instructed his crew to take pictures of it to later recreate in space.

But the blogger claimed that Hallelujah Mountain in Avatar is actually called the South Pillar of Heaven in Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province, and posted pictures of it next to a still of the film.

The fuss over exactly which mountain was used didn't catch on and really why? A particular mountain may be an inspiration for a movie, but it doesn't mean that it has to look exactly the same. This is what artists of all mediums have been doing for centuries.

Nevertheless, my colleague and I were thrilled not only to be able to see Avatar in 3D, but also for a bargain price. So despite the roundabout trip I made coming to Xian, the cold showers and lack of napkins in restaurants, sometimes there are good things about being in a Second Tier city.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Picture of the Day: Storing Ice cream

While we may all scream for ice cream, there was definitely a reason to raise the alarm when my friend and I went to a western grocery store called Jenny Lou last Saturday near where I live in Dongzhimen.

Next to the freezer filled with ice cream were containers of Dreyer's ice cream sitting OUTSIDE at room temperature.

Who knows how long that melted ice cream has been there... and when it will be refrozen, after which the thrill of eating ice cream will have dissipated because the flavour is all gone.

According to the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, you can't eat ice cream that's been melted and then refrozen.

It is not recommended to eat thawed ice cream. Ice cream is a perishable food product that needs to be kept frozen. If it was thawed in a freezer that lost power it may have spoiled and/or may harbour microorganisms that cause foodborne illness. Also, the taste and texture of the ice cream after refreezing may not be palatable.

While it wasn't a breakdown in the freezer that was the problem at Jenny Lou, it was because there wasn't enough freezer space. And just leaving it out at room temperature shows the lack of education in food safety in China.

Does Dreyer's know how its products are being handled here?

Remind me not to buy ice cream from a grocery store in China...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ancient Sage, Futuristic Aliens Battle for Screen Time

James Cameron's Avatar is one of the most profitable foreign films ever on the mainland, grossing over 500 million yuan ($76 million) at the box office so far.

My colleague just told me yesterday that her friend in Shanghai said Avatar tickets for the 3D version in the coastal city are going for as much as 1,000RMB ($146.46) on the black market.

Many people in China are starting to draw comparisons with the Na'vi people and those who are being forcibly evicted by greedy real estate developers in the country. Others see similarities with people in Tibet and Xinjiang.

That's because in the movie, human colonists try to demolish the village of an alien race in order to obtain a precious energy source buried under it.

But now there are claims Avatar will soon be taken off the big screen because it's too subversive and will soon be replaced by Confucius, played by Chow Yun-fat.

According to a report from Hong Kong's Apple Daily, the state-run China Film Group have instructed cinemas nationwide to stop showing the 2D version of Avatar from January 23 with orders from Beijing's propaganda chiefs.

"Reportedly, the authorities have two reasons for this check on Avatar," the article said. "First, it has taken in too much money and has seized market share from domestic films. And second, it may lead audiences to think about forced removal, and may possibly incite violence."

This is a possible reason as China only allows 20 foreign films per year in the hopes of nurturing its own film industry. However, the film had been expected to run until February 28, during the Spring Festival holidays. And as the fictional movie about the great sage isn't in 3D, there will likely be an even greater demand for 3D Avatar tickets -- and bigger box office receipts.

In a way this helps Confucius avoid a showdown with the Na'vi people, but anything after Avatar will be a hard act to follow.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Giant Detour

Just when I thought my nightmare of dealing with Hainan Airlines (see "The Long Road Home" dated January 4) was over, I had to deal with the airline's subsidiary, Tianjin Airlines for a flight to Xian this morning.

The airline, which was launched last June, has a goofy looking cartoon dragon for a logo, which makes it hard to take seriously.

Our flight was scheduled for 8:55am, but when we got to the gate we had to take a shuttle that seemed to take us far away... to a small plane on the tarmac. The three flight attendants weren't wearing the usual shirt, scarf around the neck, slacks and blazer. Instead they wore sportswear by Chinese brand Erke, a copy of Li Ning, which is a copy of Nike. So they were wearing track suits, casual pants and sweat shirts. Again how can an airline be professional with staff wearing casual gear?

A flight from Beijing to Xian should only take an hour and a half. My colleague had booked the tickets and we didn't realize until two hours into the flight that we were landing in Zhong Wei, a small town in Ningxia Province!  When we landed, we were the only plane there at the gate which looked very new. We made a literal pit stop at the loo before re-boarding again.

It reminded me of taking a bus tour to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, where we had to stop at the cloisonne factory on the way... but this time we were taking a detour on a plane...

This just shows how some airlines will do just about anything for business. How much actual revenue passengers will bring to Zhong Wei for literally stopping by seems hard to justify building a small airport...

In the end we finally arrived to Xian at 1pm. Now we have to check our return tickets to see if we make another detour back to Beijing...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Prisoner of the State: Zhao Ziyang

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Zhao Ziyang, who practically died in obscurity under house arrest in Beijing.

However, he left behind a series of 30 cassette tapes, recording his thoughts of what happened when he was Premier and General Party Secretary, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and his boss, Deng Xiaoping in Prisoner of the State which came out in May and is banned in the Chinese mainland.

His secretary, Bao Tong describes Zhao as a rising star who had successfully administered Guangdong and later his home province of Sichuan, where he restructured the rural economy and dramatically raised agricultural production. Bao also says that "Zhao possessed the political skill of not standing out too much, which helped him rise to the top without causing much commotion or upsetting hard-liners."

Under Deng, Zhao and Hu Yaobang, another reformer, tried to change things, to make the government more tolerant of criticism or of alternative views because they were tired of the political upheaval in the Mao years. However, once Hu and Zhao made mistakes, the hardliners would immediately pounce on them for pushing reforms too quickly.

In Prisoner of the State, Zhao brings up the names of Chen Yun and Li Xiannian several times: Chen was a Party elder who, according to Bao, "believed that the Communist Party should remain loyal to its founding ideology and pursue Soviet-style socialism." Meanwhile Li wanted to maintain status quo and was not ready to accept capitalism.

In the beginning of the book Zhao remembers what happened on the evening of June 3, recalling how he was sitting in the backyard enjoying the summer evening breeze when he heard pop sounds coming from Tiananmen Square. That was when he knew things were going to be bad. But he had tried hard to prevent it.

He tells in the book that as General Party Secretary he refused to be the one who sanctioned troops to enter the square and shoot at innocent people; he recalls how he was politically overridden by Deng and the hardliners like Li Peng, but how this was unconstitutional. It's as if Zhao thinks these technicalities should have been respected which is strange considering the government wanted to preserve its power and didn't care much about following the rules.

Zhao also outlines a number of his successful policies, including the development of the coastal areas first, with rural labour moving to the urban areas to create an export-oriented market. He also encouraged more imports to help ease pressure on farmers who were practically starving to feed the state. However he probably didn't realize this opening up would also lead to a number of social issues especially around migrant workers that the country is dealing with now at a snail's pace.

Another interesting thing he mentions is that in 1988, Hainan Province was supposed to be designated a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) like Shenzhen was in 1992. Considering the central government is pushing this initiative now over 20 years later without giving Zhao credit is even more intriguing. What would he think of that?

Despite all the reforms Zhao tried to make, the hardliners were always in the way, interfering ideologically and in the end undoing all the work he'd done and moving back to state-run policies that set back the country's development by several years. He fought back with creative vague phrases too, which shows how empty people's words can be in politics.

But most interesting is reading the end of the book where Zhao talks about the importance of China eventually evolving into a democracy. He observes that many modern progressive nations use the parliamentary system and while he says it isn't completely perfect, it is the best solution now politically, economically and socially.

I once believed that people were the masters of their own affairs, not in the parliamentary democracies of the developed nations in the West, but only in the Soviet and socialist nations' systems with a people's congress, making the latter system more advanced and a better-realized form of democracy.

This, in fact is not the case. The democratic systems of our socialist nations are all just superficial; they are not systems in which the people are in charge, but rather are ruled by a few or even a single person.

He warns that China needs to move ahead political reforms or "it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy: issues such as an unhealthy market, profiting from power, rampant social corruption, and a widening gap between rich and poor. Nor will the rule of law ever materialize. In order to resolve these problems, we must in concrete terms conduct political reform with this as our goal."

Zhao emphasizes that the Communist Party cannot make an abrupt exit, but gradually give way to allow other political parties in.

As for how long the Communist Party keeps its ruling position, this should be determined by the consequences of society's political openness and the competition between the Communist Party and other political powers. If we take the initiative and do this well, the ruling position of the Communist Party could be maintained for a very long time. However, this ruling position must not be maintained by using the constitution to monopolize this status. Rather, the Party must be made to compete for it. I believe that this is ultimately a worldwide trend that we cannot defy.

There was lots of attention when Prisoner of the State was published eight months ago. Has the momentum disappeared?

Hopefully not. His reflections after the fact are a revealing insight into Party politics and how a senior leader changed his views of China.

The country needs more people like him to make China a better place, for the people, and the world.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Impulsive Shoppers

A recent study reveals that Hong Kong people are the most impulsive shoppers in 10 worldwide markets when it comes to groceries.

The result was found in a grocery-shopping survey of countries and regions, ranging from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. Market researcher Synovate found Hong Kongers to be the most impulsive, which may explain why supermarkets have so many promotions.

Researchers interviewed 6,700 people, including 1,002 from Hong Kong last July. They found Hong Kong people were the least likely to plan for a shopping trip, buying things whenever they had time instead of scheduling it in their day. In the survey 32 percent of Hong Kongers did this compared to the global average of 17 percent. Meanwhile 62 percent globally had a shopping list in hand, while only 32 percent in Hong Kong did.

One reason for this impulsiveness is the fast pace of the city which resulted in the number of convenience stores dotted all over the city. Some 21 percent bought food from these outlets, second to Russia at 25 percent.

"Hong Kong people feel time-poor and shopping hours are flexible here," Synovate scan data specialist Eliza Wong said. "Shops open around-the-clock and people do not need to plan shopping trips."

Also, the lack of space in apartments and fridges meant more frequent trips to buy food. "If people are short of soy sauce when they cook, they can just go and buy it instantly," Wong said.

So as a result of not having a shopping list, people were more easily persuaded to buy other items on impulse, particularly those promoted by supermarkets.

Now this study needs to go a step further and link this grocery-shopping impulsiveness with diet habits and if this is leading to greater numbers of obesity and diabetes....

Friday, January 15, 2010

What's Next

It was quite amusing yesterday to hear China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu's response to Google's threat of possibly leaving the country.

"China's Internet is open," said Jiang. "China has tried creating a favourable environment for the Internet," she said in responding to Google's threat of quitting the Middle Kingdom.

"China welcomes international Internet companies to conduct business within the country according to the law," she said.

When my colleague Xiao Zhu read this, she exclaimed, "How can they lie like that!"

Well... to the Chinese government, the Internet is open, just selectively...

Yu also added that Chinese law prohibits cyber crimes including hacker attacks.

Many believe those cyber attacks originating from China have the tacit approval of the government. And the rule of law does not necessarily include the government.

It took almost two days for the Chinese government to respond, which indicates that perhaps China was thrown off by Google's announcement, or it was weighing all the pros and cons of what it would say to the public.

But Yu's statement didn't necessarily win any domestic points, as those who are Google fans are disappointed or distraught, while those who use Baidu couldn't care less.

Now the ball is back in Google's court...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Too Good for Audi

Chinese web users were enraged after they heard a senior official complain about his dissatisfaction with Audi, the luxury brand under Volkswagen. It also should be pointed out that a vast majority of government cars seem to be black Audis.

Li Rongrong (李荣融) is the chairman of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC), which overseas all state-owned enterprises (SOEs), appointing top executives, approves all mergers or sales of stocks, and helps draft laws for enterprises.

So he's a man wields considerable power in the People's Republic.

Over the weekend Li was at a forum at Peking University where he said that while state-owned car manufacturers were not quite up to world-class standards, neither were German automakers.

Media reports say he was particularly annoyed that the radio was not installed in the backseat of his Audi where he sat so that he could have better control of it.

He was quoted as saying, "At least Audi does not treat me like God."

Internet users then wondered if Li was good at his job as head of the SASAC, as state-owned enterprises are notorious for their inefficiency and bloated payroll.

One commented online that as the man in charge of SOEs, Li should ask whether those companies, which are not efficient, have treated the Chinese consumers as God.

Another asked, "Minister, why don't you use a China-made car?"

Li either thought he was being sophisticated when he said this or contemptuous of the taxpayers he serves.

Perhaps Audi will hear his request and custom-make a car to enhance his audio experience.

Or maybe the Chinese online community will mock his line, "At least Audi doesn't treat me like God" and make it the new phrase in 2010.

Virtual revenge can be sweet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Waving the White Flag

The news that Google is threatening to leave China has resulted in many people here in shock, wondering what will happen next.

Some young people went by the Google headquarters today and left bouquets of flowers and even lit candles and gave rice wine offerings as a sign of respect but also mourning the possible loss of the Internet search giant on the Chinese mainland.

On Tuesday the Internet company said it would stop cooperating with Chinese Internet censorship and was considering shutting down its China operations. It explained that it has been the victim of many hacker attacks, particularly last week which threatened to compromise the emails of human rights activists in the country. The attack also targeted at least 20 other large companies in technology, finance, media and chemical industries.

In a blog posted on the company website, David Drummond, the corporate development and chief legal officer wrote that Google had found a "highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China... These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered -- combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web -- have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China."

Is it about cyber attacks or is it about being frustrated with its market share in China?

Google had a rough start in China as it was practically made inaccessible so that the Chinese version called Baidu could grab more market share first. And most recently YouTube and Blogspot have been blocked since last March, and Twitter since July. A few months ago the government blamed Google for having too many pornographic search results on its site. But that's what a search engine does...

Last October Google China head Lee Kaifu resigned from the company. He said one of the reasons he left Google to head a venture capital fund for start-ups was because Google was not going to gain a greater market share and beat Baidu, which has a close relationship with the Chinese government.

Also, while Google was eager to get into the China market in 2002, it soon regretted its willingness to compromise and perhaps now it can't face up to its own motto of "Do No Evil!" and wants out.

Nevertheless, the implications are huge.

If Google does leave, this means walking away from years of hard work trying to build the brand in China, laying off 700 employees, and millions of dollars wasted in a very expensive lesson on how to (or how not to) do business in the Middle Kingdom.

Not only does this show Google's stubbornness in making this threat public in a country that prefers backroom deals, but also reveals the lengths to which the Chinese government will do anything to emasculate a foreign company, particularly if it doesn't have a stake in it.

And how is that a level playing field, or for that matter, how is that a true market economy?

If China wants to compete with the world, it needs to stop the rhetoric and innovate. So far it has only demonstrated it can copy the best but without special advantages it would lose miserably.

Sounds like a sore loser.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Good Intentions, Misguided Reaction

If you've become rich and possibly famous and you want to give back to your alma mater, which one do you give it to? The university you attended in your home country or the one you studied in overseas?

Zhang Lei (above) chose to do the latter -- all $8,888,888 -- the largest donation ever given to Yale University. It will be used to build a new campus for the Yale School of Management and fund China-related activities.

The 38-year-old entrepreneur established Hillhouse Capital Management in 2005 with some base capital from the university, where he graduated in 2002. Hillhouse Capital Management is a Beijing-based investment fund that manages $2.5 billion. It is named after the street where the Yale school is located.

Zhang wrote that Yale changed his life and taught him about the importance of giving. "Yale has been helping China for more than 100 years. Many Chinese leaders were educated at Yale. But the relationship has been one-way for too long and I want to help change that."

However there is outrage in China that Zhang would donate money to a US university instead of a Chinese one, where he did his undergraduate studies at Renmin University in Beijing.

Some Internet users have even called him a "traitor". "Why does a Chinese donate to another country's development?" asked one, while another demanded, "$8.88 million is a big donation and I think his motherland, China, needs it more than a developed country."

Another said, "The Chinese education system helped you, but Americans have only ever given us trouble. Helping them hurts China. Got it?"

However, others side with Zhang, saying the Chinese education system doesn't deserve any donations because of corruption and large class sizes, leaving students feeling like they didn't learn much.

"Any money you donate in China eventually falls into the pockets of corrupt officials. Donating the money where it will help is wise," said a web user.

What does China's education system give graduates? Uemployment and bogus degrees," said a commentary on the website of China National Radio that urged the public not to be so hasty in criticizing Zhang.

This kind of heated reaction only shows the insecurity of Chinese people who think being a patriot is the only correct thing to do. It also reveals the uneven development of the country, where so many people are still literally dirt poor and illiterate, while others are making millions of dollars after studying abroad.

This huge divide will only fuel more resentment rather than praise of one of their own.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Watching the Real Thing

I have yet to watch the James Cameron smash hit Avatar, and a few friends here have recommended that I go see it, in 3-D of course.

Last week the movie grossed $14.65 million, the first week it was shown in China.

However, in the Chinese capital it's almost impossible to get a ticket for the 3-D version.

A news story here says there are only three theaters that show the 3-D version -- the China National Film Museum, the Shuang'an branch of UME and the Shijingshan branch of Wanda International Cinema.

Zhang Can, a 22-year-old student, said that tickets, including those for the non-digital version were sold out in about two hours on Friday. "Many people protested and asked that cinemas provide standing-room only tickets," Zhang said.

Another man complained that it was his fifth time to try and buy a ticket without success. Then he allegedly took his frustrations out on a billboard by breaking it before he was dragged away by the cinema security guards.

One person blogged about his experience and said that the China National Film Museum announced it had 1,224 tickets available on Saturday, but by 9am, only half an hour after the box office opened, all the tickets were sold out.

"The person at the head of the line told me that he came to the cinema at 2am on Saturday," he wrote in his post, adding that people can only get a ticket if they get into the queue before 6am.

The other two locations have similar situations, with the UME one saying there were no tickets before January 18, and Wanda one was already sold out for next weekend.

This has created a big business for scalpers.

The regular price for tickets range from 100-150RMB ($14.64-$21.97) but scalpers can sell them for 200RMB to even 400RMB ($56.60) on, the Chinese version of eBay.

Everyone says you must watch the 3-D version of Avatar, as fake DVD makers can't even begin to replicate this kind of technology. That explains the massive lineups, as people usually buy the fake DVDs later or even download them for free.

So this makes Avatar probably the first Hollywood movie that actually beat the fake DVD circuit.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fact of the Day: Rampant Corruption

Xinhua recently released some interesting figures on the numbers of corrupt officials caught with their hands in the kitty last year.

From January to November 2009, 106,626 officials across China were punished for discipline violations, an official with the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said Thursday.

Gan Yisheng, vice secretary of the CCDI said anti-graft bodies and discipline inspection departments had received nearly 1.32 million petitions and tip-offs in the 11 months, of which 8.75 percent were investigated and prosecuted.

Less than 9 percent of the petitions and tip-offs were investigated? Either that shows a severely understaffed department or they are not very efficient.

Considering President Hu Jintao keeps talking about how the government is making the battle against corruption a priority, it's strange not much has been done to beef up investigations.

It also shows that with such a low rate of getting caught, many officials continue to take the gamble of lining their pockets with public money...

A total of 106,626 officials across China had been punished for discipline violations from January to November in 2009, an official with the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said Thursday.

Gan Yisheng, vice secretary of the CCDI, said anti-graft bodies and discipline inspection departments had received nearly 1.32 million petitions and tip-offs in the 11 months, 8.75 percent of which had been placed on file for investigation and prosecution.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Great Expectations

The big news this week in China is that NBA basketball star Yao Ming and his wife Ye Li, also a former player on the Chinese women's basketball team, are expecting a baby.

Ever since the two tied the knot in 2007, speculation was rampant about when baby Yao would show up.

Apparently it was Ye's good friend Miao Li accidentally leaked the news on Monday in Shanghai when asked why Ye was not attending a 2010 Expo promotional event.

"Ye looks well now and sleeps early every day for the well being of the fetus. The couple hopes to have a boy," said Miao. "She was supposed to be with the show today, but I understand that it's inconvenient for her to come," Ye's former teammate added.

"The news that Ye Li is pregnant is true. Yao Ming and his wife would like to thank all those who are showing concern," confirmed Yao's China-based spokesman Zhang Chi.

He apparently declined to give any further details, citing "the need for a relaxed environment for China's most famous basketballing couple to complete the most important thing in their lives."

Now just about everyone in China, or at least the ones online are excited about the possibility of Yao and Ye's progeny becoming the next generation in Chinese basketball.

With dad standing at 2.29 meters and mom at 1.90 meters; in most fans' eyes, the kid is destined to be super tall.

"We hope that Yao Ming and Ye Li will go further and raise more pillars of the next generation of Chinese basketball," a report on said. As both Ye and Yao are only children, they are also eligible to have two children.

There is so much pressure already on this unborn child to make slam dunks, not only that, but to represent the country too.

In the west there really isn't that kind of an equivalent. While there might be a few initial jabs about David Beckham's three sons going into football, no one is really expecting them to follow suit. Or Andre Agassi's children to serve aces on the tennis court.

The same should be for Yao's kid(s). Just because he or she will be tall, it doesn't mean they want to play basketball. Of course the parents will encourage him/her, but as daddy makes so much money from endorsements, maybe that can shield his kid from having to be in the spotlight all the time.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Where's the Polisher? Part 5

On the flight back from Haikou to Beijing, we perused through the in-flight magazines which are usually full of Chinglish.

The writing is cringe-worthy and the words are screaming for a native English speaker to fix them up.

One time in late 2007 I asked my friend to help me call Air China to help them edit the English portion their in-flight magazines; after all, it was going to be the official carrier of the Beijing Olympics and hundreds perhaps thousands of foreigners would be reading its publication.

The response back was an emphatic "no".

Hainan Airlines has not fared better, but in the December issue the writer has done some creative writing.

The description of the movies seem to be lifted off somewhere else which calls into question plagarism, but in order to make things slightly different, this synopsis of Batman Begins is:

Bruce Wayne dedicates his life to avenging the murder of his parents. With a detective's intuition and a millionaire's resources, the master crime-fighter squares off against Gotham's biggest (sic) that with the right combination of passion, fearlessness and butter, anything is possible.


How does being armed with butter help fight against crime? Or does it help in getting the Batman suit on?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Just My Luck

On the subway and buses there is an animated public service announcement in case you get stuck in an elevator.

In the crudely drawn cartoon, an old man and a young woman and her daughter are stuck in the elevator. They freak out, cry, run in circles in the elevator and try to pry the door open. This, instructs the message, is not the right reaction.

The scenario happens again, but this time they calmly use the phone in the lift and call for help. Soon mechanics come and pry the doors open, where the girl is playing happily with a toy car on the floor and everyone is smiling.

That PSA went through my head when I got stuck in the elevator on my way to work this morning.

I got into the lift and soon after the doors shut, the elevator stopped. A middle-aged man was with me and we tried pressing other buttons but the elevator would not budge. So I pressed the help button a few times and a man's voice came on asking what was wrong.

"The elevator is broken!" The man next to me explained.

"OK, hold on we're getting help," the voice said. "Please don't worry."

A few minutes went by -- probably just two or three and the older man pressed the button again.

"We're stuck here!" he said.

Again the voice reassured him that help was on the way.

It was kind of strange, standing in a box-like compartment with a stranger and not having much to say to them. I texted people at work on my cell phone to explain the situation I was in and that I would probably be late for work.

"Is there anything I can do?" my colleague asked.

I texted back that unless she could fix an elevator there wasn't much more she or anyone else could do.

After a few minutes there was a bit of rumbling and movement and soon enough, the door was pried open.

"Anyone else in there?" a voice asked.

"No," replied the man next to me after we got off. "Everyone is out."

I said "thank you" after that to let them know we appreciated being freed.

It turns out many elevators in my building have been out of order in the last few days. Is it the weather? Or have their warranties expired at the same time?

Dreaming of Paradise

After finally making it back to Beijing from Hainan, it was interesting to read in the news that the central government has decided to make an all-out push to develop Hainan Province as a world-class destination by 2020.

In a proposal by the State Council on Monday, Hainan will be developed into a venue to host international sports and entertainment events, and perhaps even have lottery and gaming industries. No other area in China allows gambling except for Macau.

"If entertainment elements are not introduced in Hainan, something will be missing in an international tourism destination," Wang Yongsheng of the Regional Tourism Development of the Regional Science Association of China was quoted as saying. He added that while gambling is forbidden in South Korea, overseas passport holders can gamble at Walrk Hill in Seoul.

The government will also extend visa-free policies to Finland, Denmark, Norway, Ukraine and Kazakhtstan from the already 21 countries including the United States, Canada and Japan. In 2007 there were 18 million domestic visitors to Hainan, but only 750,000 from overseas. There will also be more duty-free shopping on the island.

"It'll be much more convenient to purchase luxury goods in Hainan than Hong Kong, as the return flight tickets and the price of local hotels are cheaper, and tourists don't need to apply for an exit permit in advance or choose international flights," said Liao Wei, general manager of the China Travel Service Group in Chongqing.

While all these proposals are fantastic, they are all so idealistic that it seems like the government doesn't really know what is going on in the island province right now.

First off, have they seen the Sanya and Haikou airports? They are hardly of an international standard and don't have staff who speak enough English to service foreigners. While it was quite impressive to see DFS or the Duty-Free Shop chain, it is only selling a limited selection of cosmetics and perfumes, and the rest of the shops selling an array of expensive fruits at exortionate prices aren't quite enticing. And the food stands? Hardly enough.

Next infrastructure. While most of the roads are decently paved, there are many more that need work. There isn't enough public transportation vehicles from buses to taxis available. Airport express trains need to be built as well as a rail network through the province. Getting to the Sofitel Boao only had two options -- using three different types of transport or a hotel car. Many other top hotel resorts are probably like that too.

A good thing happening so far is that many of the street lamps are solar and wind powered pictured above. I don't know how much power they are able to generate from a small solar panel and wind turbine, but it's a start.

While service in Beijing isn't quite world-class though the city hosted the 2008 Olympics, it's not that great in Hainan either. To be an international tourist destination requires exceptional service which is why Hong Kong is still tops when it comes to the service industry in Asia.

And what makes Hainan so different from other tropical destinations like Thailand and Indonesia? It doesn't seem to have much of a cultural aspect that makes it exotic in any way. Is gambling going to make it so much better? Perhaps this is one way for the central government to keep a closer eye on its residents (or corrupt officials) who are currently spending vast amounts of money in Hong Kong and Macau.

Right now a holiday to Sanya is not cheap -- not only are plane tickets expensive, but so are hotel rooms which are exorbitant. Adding many more top hotels will not make Hainan that much more attractive. The market can only handle so many world-class resorts and golf courses making this destination out of reach of the majority of people.

Hainan officials promise that construction will try not to have too much of an impact on the environment, but really, flying there is hardly creating a low-carbon footprint. From my experience at the Sofitel Boao, the majority of food and all the items there had to be shipped, flown and trucked in. How is that sustainable?

And what about the locals? This gentrification of the province may be good, but has made the standard of living there very expensive on their low wages. Also, if gaming is introduced to Hainan, a littany of social issues are going to crop up and is the government prepared to deal with everything from petty crimes and gambling addictions to prostitution and drugs?

All this is happening in 10 years? Methinks it's back to the drawing board...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lifestyles of the Rich and Probably Corrupt

The Sofitel Boao offered interesting people watching for the less than 48 hours we were there. For people to afford to fly to Hainan and then put up entire families or groups at this five-star hotel, we imagined most of them could be corrupt officials.

Many were nouveaux riche northerners as a number of the women still insisted on wearing sweaters, wool dresses and boots even though the temperature was 25 degrees outside. One wonders if they knew they were in a warm climate zone. Meanwhile, the men got into the tropical swing of things, many wearing bad Hawaii-like shirts, or even with matching shorts. The only thing they were missing was a pineapple-flavored drink in their hands.

While we ate dinner at Symposium, the Chinese restaurant, a woman and her daughter made a late entrance to a group dinner, the little girl wearing the kiddie-version of Belle's yellow ballgown in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. It was complete with ruffled layers, puffed sleeves and came down to her ankles. She even wore the dress to breakfast the next day and to the pool.

At the next table with the same group dinner was a boy around 12 years old, who stood up and with his chopsticks, picked up food and shoved it in his mouth, even reaching over despite having a lazy susan on the table. Grabbing the food without any regard to the other people at the table, he stuffed his face, both parents not bothering to discipline him. More evidence of spoiled brats?

After dinner we wandered around the property and as we approached an outdoor barbecue venue that was reserved for a seminar group, a severely inebriated man had to be held up by two buddies, and it wasn't even 10pm yet. Did he get too eager with the toasts?

When we finished our walk and returned to the elevator which is across from the entrance to the spa, a hotel staff person told us to watch out, as there were paper towels covering something on the floor which was probably vomit from the same guy. Does the hotel have to deal with drunk guests on a regular basis?

On our second day there, we decided to go to the hot springs in the afternoon. The hotel has 37 hot springs, each with their own particular scents or herbal remedies that are supposed to help with blood circulation, or anemia, promote better skin or relaxation. Most seemed to be geared towards the elderly...

In any case, we settled into one that had an uninterrupted view of the ocean. Then a family -- or should I say two families -- started invading our space, including three generations, grandma, son and his young son. As we sat admiring the view, the kid points to us and says loudly, "Laowai! (foreigner!)"

The father said, "Yes, look. He is different from you. His nose is so big!"

In hindsight we should have responded with something like, "We understood what you said!" or "Your nose is just as big!" and stared back at them. But we were so annoyed that our interest in the sea view had totally dissipated and we soon got up and left.

This is not to say this was the only time Chinese people have pointed and remarked about foreigners' physical appearance; however it seemed this father was promoting racism at an early age.

His remark also reveals how the Chinese prefer to live in a homogeneous society. However, today we live in a world where cultures and races are more blended than ever before. If the Chinese cannot see that we're all one and the same, how can there be a "harmonious society"?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Surreal Hotel Experience

The Sofitel Boao is a giant 78,000 square meter complex very close to the venue for the annual Boao Forum for Asia. It's definitely a place to escape to for a few days and very secure, as there's a check point a few kilometers away that keeps unwanted or unqualified people from entering.

The hotel is merited its five-star status in terms of the rooms, with bed linens framed with gold threading, a marble shower stall and a stand alone bathtub, shiny wooden floors, and a nice small balcony to enjoy the view outside.

But other things don't quite make this place world class, or are efficiently used.

Surrounding the hotel is a gigantic landscape featuring a long winding swimming pool called Jade Belt, which is actually covered in dark blue tiles and the edge of the pool is so subtle that it looks like it merges with the ocean to create a great view. However it's a pity that the pool water is so cold, despite pathetic efforts to warm it in patches. Or maybe it's too cold to swim in it in January. So why not have an indoor pool available too?

Anyway, my friend and I were lucky to have a sunny day there and decided to pass the time by the pool. While there were beach towels for us to put on the lounge chairs, there were no refreshments available -- we had to refill our water bottles at the fitness center, even though there is a sunken bar in the pool, but no one manning it.

There were washrooms by the pool -- both squatting and sitting toilets, but when I went in, one of the taps at the sink was running and no staff member had come by to turn it off. One wonders how long that had been running.

In terms of dining, there aren't many choices -- there's Le Mistral, a western-style restaurant that offers either buffet, or a la carte. On our first night there, we inquired about dining off the menu, but the staff told us the kitchen was busy so we'd have to wait. Scanning the room and seeing the buffet barely set up at almost 7pm, it was a strange excuse that was hard to accept.

We did eat there the night after, with a plate of smoked salmon, a garden salad, and then an overcooked beef tenderloin when my friend wanted it really rare, and the seafood boullabaisse had frozen prawns and overcooked mussels. The best part were the fresh clams and scallops. The banana split was OK except for the re-frozen scoop of vanilla ice cream that was completely tasteless. However, the chocolate butter cake was very good.

Symposium is the Chinese restaurant, and it turns out most guests prefer dining there. Not only is it comfort food for the mainly Chinese clientele, but also reasonably priced relative to Le Mistral. We had a fantastic garoupa that was perfectly steamed, braised eggplant, sweet and sour spare ribs, steamed pumpkin with lily bulbs, and stir-fried rice with shrimp.

The other restaurant is Asiana, which is also buffet-style for breakfasts and offers an array of Asian-style dishes. One complaint from my friend is that for breakfast there aren't many western-style dishes, but then again, most of the guests there are probably happy with fried noodles and congee.

None of these restaurants was outstandingly good, which made the dining experience short of satisfying. Also, why haven't the food and beverage department taken advantage of the fact that the hotel guests are practically stranded in the hotel and encourage them to eat more during the day? Why not follow the lead of cruise ships and other top hotels by offering afternoon tea, dessert buffet in the evenings or even an ice cream stand for kids?

The reason I suggest this is that there isn't much to do at the hotel unless you want to swim in the cold pool and while there are 37 different hot springs (probably completely manufactured), you can only soak in so many a day. There is a small exercise gym and a spa for massages and facials, but other than the billiard tables, table tennis and tennis court, there isn't much else to pass the time. Also there were many families staying at the hotel -- why not organize activities for children to do, or have more spaces for them to play in?

The hotel complex is absolutely huge -- it's like being in a Las Vegas hotel but without the large numbers of people everywhere. While it is great there are bathrooms in various areas of the hotel, the place was hardly full, which makes one wonder how they fill the rooms on a daily basis. There are golf groups as there is a golf course across the street, and a few conferences, while the rest of the clientele were family groups.

Service from staff ranged from incompetence to the perfect hotel employee. When we dined at Le Mistral, we asked for the dessert menu, but the waitress didn't seem to know what to do. Some had decent English, but preferred not to use it. When we asked about the hotel arranging transportation for us to go back to the Haikou Airport, a haughty man at the front desk said the only way back was the hotel limousine and that would cost us 650RMB ($95).

We didn't take that for an answer and the next day asked another man named Reuben at the front desk. He said we could get a taxi at less than half of the cost of the hotel car and helped us book the taxi too. And when we checked out, he escorted us to the car to see us off. First class.

It's so strange seeing such diverse standards at this one hotel. While it is understandable due to the secluded location that they would receive few guests most of the year, but when the Boao Forum comes in April, the hotel has to quickly ramp up to give tip top service to high-powered international guests who are extremely demanding. Saying "this is China" is not acceptable.

And while the Boao Forum talks about pressing issues like the economy and environment, it's ironic that the permanent site for the event was practically built for it... in the middle of nowhere. How is that sustainable?

Sofitel Boao
Dongyu Island
Boao Aquapolis
Hainan Province
(898) 6296 6888

Monday, January 4, 2010

Planes, Buses and Taxis

My friend and I decided to ring in 2010 by escaping the cold dry winter in Beijing for the warm sunny climes of Hainan Island.

We made a reservation at the Sofitel Boao, which is where the Boao Forum for Asia is held every year. It's where leaders in government, business and academia in Asia get together to discuss the pressing issues of the day. It started in 2001 and Boao has become the permanent site, though it's strange it's based basically in the middle of nowhere though the location has a resort feel.

And how do you get there? Be prepared for a long day of travel... if you're not a big shot.

First it takes three hours and 20 minutes to fly from Beijing to Haikou (海口). Then after gathering our luggage, we took an airport bus to the Haikou East Bus Station that cost 15RMB ($2.19) each.

The day we arrived it was raining and there were tons of people riding scooters, including entire families clutching onto each other on this cheap mode of transport. Usually the driver wore a helmet -- even a construction hard hat would do -- but the other passengers were helmetless.

On our bus ride was an obnoxious Brit, a man in his 60s who seemed easily frustrated by everything, spewing profanities at anything that crossed his path. He was accompanied by a middle-aged Chinese woman, but when she disembarked from the bus, he couldn't figure out which luggage was hers and demanded the young woman leading our bus group to "find the woman".

For some strange reason, the bus didn't drop us off directly across from the East Bus Station and we had to walk another block in the rain and cross the street.

It was a dreary-looking bus station that was dim inside, and the floor was completely wet due to the rain. While we were hungry and hadn't had lunch, we were anxious to get to the hotel and thought we'd be near shops and restaurants to try out some seafood so we held out from buying cheap snacks at the food stand. We bought tickets to Qionghai (琼海) at 25RMB each. There was an option of 20RMB, but the woman manning the ticket booth urged us foreigners to get the more expensive tickets. We soon saw why.

At the chaotic gates we could see small buses and then big luxury ones, both going the same direction, thus the two different prices. We stood there waiting half an hour, watching lots of people pushing to get their tickets validated by a woman in uniform before they could get on the bus. The bus drivers, especially the ones driving the luxury buses acted like hot shots, walking with a swagger and smoking a cigarette.

We finally got on the clean bus that had lots of leg room and tried to settle into an hour and a half ride, that came with entertainment courtesy of a TV screen showing a live concert recorded earlier with Chinese singers I didn't recognize at all.

Then we rolled into Qionghai that seemed to have orderly streets, but hardly any taxis. When we arrived at that bus station, we managed to flag down a taxi right away with a driver who immediately agreed to take us when he heard we wanted to go to Boao.

I can see why, as it was another 20km away, costing us 54RMB, not bad considering our starting rate was 5RMB. For the driver, it was his lucky day.

We later found out that the hotel does not provide shuttle service, only its limousine which would cost 650RMB ($95), or a taxi for 300RMB to go straight to the airport. We obviously opted for the latter when we left to go back to Beijing to avoid the many transfers we made to get there.

After passing many rice paddies, water buffalo, geese and palm trees, we finally crossed a long bridge and then a check point that had a security guard. After we drove through it was another 5km before we passed the actual venue where the Boao Forum is held, and then finally we arrived at the Sofitel Boao, a giant luxury complex that was as far away from anything else as possible.

Basically, we were stuck there, and for two days, why not?

But it took a long time to get to almost paradise.

The Long Road Home

I finally got home to Beijing at 2:45am after spending 11 hours at the Haikou Airport because the flight back was delayed for eight hours.

My friend and I thought we'd spend a few days in Bo'ao, an island 120km from Haikou for some rest and relaxation -- which we did get -- but the journey to and from Bo'ao was tedious and could have been stressful, but we were too tired to get worked up about it.

Yesterday morning we got up early to catch at 12:50pm flight. That entailed arranging a taxi ahead of time to take us to the airport in two hours, with two hours extra to check in.

The taxi ride was just over an hour and a half and we zipped along the highway which passed by lots of rice paddies, farmers wearing straw hats and water buffalo. Strangely enough we also saw a trio of Africans walking along the highway exit which was an odd sight for this southern Chinese province. We wondered what that was all about. They wore shorts and T-shirts but no umbrella despite the light showers and overcast weather.

When we arrived at the airport, our flight on Hainan Airlines was not shown on the board yet, but about 20 minutes later it was, and delayed until 2:50pm. Apparently there was heavy snow in Beijing and that was the reason for the delay.

So we ate lunch -- Hainan chicken with rice served in a coconut shell, and sipped from a young coconut to pass the time.

We passed through security and waited at the gate. The plane was not there yet, but actually arrived around 2pm. Those Beijing passengers disembarked and the plane was cleaned and refueled.

When 2:50pm came, we started to board the flight.

Then we sat on the plane for an hour, as the staff announced we had no departure time set. So the flight attendants started handing us meals to eat.

After those were eaten and drinks were drunk, it was announced that since there was still no departure time that it would be better if we disembarked and waited at the gate. I had never experienced that before, sitting on a plane and then asked to get out.

And we waited. And waited. And waited.

People started wandering towards the desk and asking the man manning the desk when we would fly, but he could not give an answer. As the messenger, he had to wait until he heard from the airline. When would that be? He did not know.

And we waited. And waited. And waited.

I don't know how we passed the time, as we didn't want to wander too far if there was an announcement. We sat there, not tired enough to fall asleep (there was no way to get comfortable) and getting hungry.

A flight to Shanghai was supposed to leave from our gate, but was moved to another one... and same with a flight to Wuhan later in the evening.

Meanwhile our plane just sat there, lights out.

More people got anxious and started complaining that there were young children and elderly passengers, and that people had a right to know what was going on. A large Frenchman in a lime green short-sleeve polo shirt, wearing shorts and a full beard pounded on the desk many times demanding to have more information. At one point I acted as his translator. He couldn't understand why there was no customer service. I had to explain that this was China... that the travel industry has only grown in the last few years and that customer service had not caught on yet. He shook his head in disbelief.

The anger level of the other passengers came in waves and never really rose much higher until another Chinese woman shouted at the Hainan Airlines man and her husband tried to drag her away out of embarassment. She refused to budge.

Meanwhile other airlines' flights to Beijing had been cancelled and we thought the probability of ours being cancelled too was very high. Apparently the snow was coming down hard in the capital and although we could fly there, it didn't necessarily mean we could land. However, the most annoying part was that the airline refused to decide to cancel the flight, leaving us all stranded at the gate and wondering what would happen.

This demonstrated that Hainan Airlines and many others had no proper decision-making process in place, and no contingency plans decided ahead of time in times of extreme weather conditions. This should have been determined ages ago, and staff knowing and following the procedure instead of just telling passengers that they didn't know. Passengers should only be expected to wait a certain period of time and in the meantime prepare to put them up in a hotel to wait out the snow.

In the meantime, how could Beijing, with its three terminals, not be able to handle just over seven inches of snow? If you build fancy terminals, you have to have the equipment to service them, and that includes snow removal equipment. While there has been less snow in recent years, there is still snow in Beijing that needs to be cleared.

We had been told a dinner would be given to us (as a lunch had been earlier too) at 7pm, but it wasn't until almost 8pm did carts of lunch boxes arrive. We scrambled to get food, which consisted of a boiled egg, rice with a dash or soy sauce, deepfried chunks of chicken, a sausage and cabbage, with coconut juice to wash it all down. As we ate, we saw the airline crew get onto the plane which raised our hopes again and we ate faster.

And indeed the electronic board at the gate said we were boarding, though the time still said 12:50pm.

We boarded again at 8:45pm, the staff member ripping a piece off our boarding cards as he had already taken the other stub. But then we didn't take off right away as there were still some missing passengers. I had heard some may have even left the gate and gone home.

But about 20 minutes later our plane left the gate and headed for the runway. Some complained to the flight attendants on board that since we were arriving late in Beijing there would be no public transportation available and would the airline be responsible for that? She couldn't answer this question, but tried to calm down the frustration the best she could.

Overall it was a smooth flight, and as we approached Beijing I could see huge patches of snow, and snow on the roads, with hardly any cars on them.

We landed safely, much to the delight of passengers who clapped in appreciation. However, we parked in the middle of nowhere and had to deplane to waiting buses outside. When they saw the Frenchman in the green short-sleeve polo shirts and shorts walk down the stairs, everyone laughed -- did he not know Beijing was cold?

I finally got my luggage and headed to the taxi stand. The young men in charge of herding taxis said there weren't many cars all day. How were we supposed to get one at 2am?

But luckily they came a few mintes after the other and we managed to get in and have a safe ride back home too. Not many people were on the roads which were hardly cleared either.

It turns out 90 percent of flights from Beijing Capital International Airport were cancelled or severely delayed, with only one of three runways working at one point.

We were too lucky to make it home.